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St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne

Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe

Scott B. Montgomery

The cult of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgin Martyrs of Cologne was the most widespread relic cult in medieval Europe. The sheer abundance of relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which allowed for the display of immense collections, shaped the notion of corporate cohesion that characterized the cult. Though the primacy of St. Ursula as the leader of this holy band was established by the tenth century, she was conceived as the head of a corporate body. Innumerable inventories and liturgical texts attest to the fact that this cult was commemorated and referenced as a collective mass – Undecim millium virginum. This group identity informed, and was formulated by, the presentation of their relics, as well as much of the imagery associated with this cult. This book explores the visual, textual, performative, and perceptual aspects of this phenomenon, with particular emphasis on painting and sculpture in late medieval Cologne. Examining the ways in which both texts and images worked as vestments, garbing the true core of relics which formed the body of the cult, the book examines the cult from the core outward, seeking to understand hagiographic texts and images in terms of their role in articulating relic cults.


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X. Golden Bones: The Goldene Kammer of St. Ursula and Early Modern Developments


From the sixteenth century onward, the cult became increasingly referred to as that of Ursula and her companions, as the name of the group’s leader gradually superseded the collective title of Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. This is revealed in the nomenclature contained in liturgical texts of the time, as well as by the tendency to refer to their church as St. Ursula, and the decision of Angela Merici to name her order of holy women after St. Ursula.1 Despite the increased emphasis on the individual figure of St. Ursula, the cult continued to remain extremely popular as a focus of collective piety. The seventeenth century witnessed a marked spike in adorning the cult – both textually and monumentally – with particular emphasis on the group’s leader. The frontispiece of Aegidius Gelenius’ De admiranda sacra et civili magnitudine Coloniae, Cologne, published in 1645, consists of an engraving with a view of the city surrounded by many of its patron saints. It is hardly accidental that the central vertical axis portrays the cityscape of Cologne between the Three Magi adoring the Christ Child above and the Eleven Thousand Virgins below. This arrangement visually echoes the coat of arms of the city, also visible, with the three crowns above and the 1 Regarding Angela Merici’s life, consult Victor Coonin, “The Allure of Romanino’s Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine,” in Old Masters in Context: Romanino’s “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine,” (Brooks Museum of Art Bulletin, No. 4), Victor Coonin, ed., Memphis: Brooks Museum of Art,...

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